In the 1960s Walt Disney had an idea! Following Disneyland’s success he wanted to build a new theme park, but he wanted to do it bigger and better. He began scouting land, it had to be somewhere that stayed warm enough to operate year round but undeveloped so he could avoid the pitfalls he encountered in California (he hated that you could see the park from the road). He settled, of course, on Florida. At the time, Orlando was largely undeveloped swampland. He secretly began buying up a ton of land, determined to make the area so big that the city couldn’t encroach on it like it had in Disneyland.
In the process, he applied for special governance for the land. Controlling it himself meant he would never have to worry about the California problem. It was then that he got the idea for EPCOT- as a city, not a theme park. Thus the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) was born.
The city, as you know, never happened. The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow became a theme park. This is the crux of the latest argument in the DeSantis vs. Disney saga. Lawmakers are claiming Disney failed to deliver on its promise.
Many believed with Bob Iger’s return, Florida’s governor would stop his mission to strip Disney of RCID’s controlling powers. Instead, Governor DeSantis and other Republican lawmakers have a very different idea in mind.
“People have to remember that the pitch to create Reedy Creek was Disney saying ‘we’ll build a city if you give us city powers,’ and then they didn’t build a city. I think they intended to, I don’t think it was bad faith, but they didn’t follow through,” Rep. Randy Fine told local news station, WFLA, in December.
Rep. Fine says that this gives the government grounds to dissolve the district. Fine was the architect behind RCDI’s dissolution when he authored a bill that stripped special districts of their status if they were created before Florida’s state constitution was ratified in 1968.
The deal between Disney and the state flew under the radar until 2022 when then CEO Bob Chapek opposed the state’s Parental Rights in Education Act (a bill dubbed the “don’t say gay bill” by critics that prevents educators from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity with children younger than 3rd grade). When Chapek vowed to have the law overturned, Florida answered with the Special Districts Bill.
Make no mistake, the bill was retalitory abd Rep. Fine admits to as much. When Iger returned to the helm in November, Fine was willing to discuss the possibility of a reconciliation saying, “I think it’s easier to move forward with the guy who didn’t make the mistake than the guy who did.” However, despite Fine’s potential change of heart, DeSantis has no plans to reverse course.
In fact, he has singled out Disney specifically. Other special districts that were stripped of their rights as a result of this bill have the opportunity to re-apply to have their status reinstated, but not Disney. Instead, the Governor is proposing a state-controlled board be put in place. The proposed “advisory board” would control everything from managing bond obligations, to taxation and to permits and regulations. It would also control District boundaries, names, and other governmental activities currently handled by the existing system.
In a statement, DeSantis representative Taryn Fenske said, “The corporate kingdom has come to an end. Under the proposed legislation, Disney will no longer control its own government, will live under the same laws as everyone else, will be responsible for their outstanding debts, and will pay their fair share of taxes. Imposing a state-controlled board will also ensure that Orange County cannot use this issue as a pretext to raise taxes on Orange County residents.”